5:03pm: The Cubs have officially announced the signing.
11:03am: Boxberger will be paid a $2MM salary for the 2023 season, and his contract contains a $5MM mutual option with an $800K buyout, MLBTR has learned.
10:31am: The Cubs have agreed to a one-year deal with free agent righty Brad Boxberger, reports ESPN’s Jeff Passan (Twitter thread). The Paragon Sports International client will be guaranteed $2.8MM on the deal.
Boxberger, 34, spent the past two seasons with the Brewers, who paid a $750K buyout on the veteran reliever rather than exercise a $3MM club option. At a combined $3.55MM between that buyout and the new Cubs deal, Boxberger will come out ahead and wind up earning more than if the Brewers had simply picked up the option.
Boxberger’s career looked to have hit a snag following a tough stretch in 2018-19 when he posted a combined 4.73 ERA and walked 13.8% of his opponents between the D-backs and Royals. That led to a minor league deal with the Marlins for the 2020 season, and he’s righted the ship nicely in the three years since. In that time, Boxberger carries a combined 3.13 ERA in 146 2/3 innings, and he’s piled up 57 holds and five saves along the way.
For the Brewers, Boxberger made 70 and 71 appearances across the past two seasons, pitching in 64 and 64 2/3 innings. He doesn’t have an overpowering fastball (93.1 mph average) but nonetheless managed a 31.2% strikeout rate in 2021 — although that mark dipped to a 25.4% in 2022 (still better than the league average). Boxberger relied heavily on called strikes over missed bats, however, as his 21.2% called-strike rate was the third-highest among 152 qualified relievers, while his 9.5% swinging-strike rate ranked as the 14th-lowest.
Given those trends, it’s fair to wonder whether further regression in terms of strikeout rate could be on the horizon, but even if that’s the case, Boxberger has been strong in terms of limiting hard contact over the past several seasons — particularly in 2022. Last year’s 86.4 mph average exit velocity (90th percentile) and 33.9% hard-hit rate (81st percentile) both ranked quite well among MLB pitchers, per Statcast.
The Cubs will be Boxberger’s seventh big league franchise, and he’ll slot into what was otherwise a generally inexperienced bullpen. Prior to this deal right-hander Rowan Wick was the only reliever on the Cubs’ roster who has even three years of Major League service time. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise for the Cubs to further pursue veteran additions, though if this signing and the Cubs’ recent history tells us anything, such additions could fall into a similar price range.
Chicago’s deal with Boxberger continues the team’s recent trend of prioritizing low-cost, one-year bullpen pickups rather than committing significant money to the bullpen. In the past three years, the Cubs have eschewed more prominent bullpen targets and and signed Mychal Givens ($5MM), David Robertson ($3.5MM), Daniel Norris ($1.75MM), Chris Martin ($2.5MM), Ryan Tepera ($800K), Brandon Workman ($3MM), Trevor Williams ($2.5MM), Dan Winkler ($750K) and Jonathan Holder ($750K) to one-year contracts. To the team’s credit, they’ve had some rather notable successes (Robertson, Martin, Tepera in particular), and even the deals that have missed haven’t really stung, given the relatively minimal nature of the guarantees.
On the other side of the coin, relying on one-year deals of this nature creates an annual need to patch together a bullpen in piecemeal fashion while simultaneously shining a light on some of the team’s struggles in developing bullpen arms who can be affordably controlled for years at a time. Righty Scott Effross was a notable exception, and the Cubs can hardly be faulted for flipping five years of control over him to the Yankees in a deadline trade for well-regarded prospect Hayden Wesneski, but in an ideal setting the Cubs wouldn’t need to set out into free agency in search of a handful of one-year bullpen stopgaps each winter.